“This is a wish come true,” says Yuki Sakamoto, cofounder of the Chicago Japan Film Collective (CJFC), the first-ever Japanese film festival held in Chicago. The festival runs from May 25 through May 31 on Eventive, a digital streaming platform. “We are hoping to do a hybrid festival next year in theaters and also online, to make it bigger and bigger,” says cofounder Hiroshi Kono. Kono founded New York Japan CineFest in 2012, a film festival with a focus on Japanese indie shorts, while Sakamoto works with the Chicago International Film Festival and produces films of her own. CJFC is a product of their creative collaboration and friendship.

This year’s slate of nine Japanese films is comprised solely of independent films. Sakamoto says, “To me, independent works have a personal story that I very much cherish but the distribution is not easy—sometimes it’s impossible.” She notes that especially at international film premieres and festivals when lined up next to European films, Japanese films with monetary and logistical support from big studios are the only ones with a fighting chance. That’s why she and Kono have chosen to bring smaller indie films to Chicago, many of them enjoying their first midwest if not North American premieres.

Among the programmed films, BOLT and Alone Again In Fukushima focus on the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, two world-changing events that marked a tenth anniversary this year. This too was an intentional choice by Sakamoto and Kono. “It’s an ongoing thing—it never became part of history. We were very conscious of pieces that reflected the tragic disaster,” Sakamoto says, with Kono adding, “We need to bring it up and show to the world what’s going on in Japan.”

BOLT, directed by Kaizo Hayashi, is a cinematographic standout with exacting attention to detail, drawing out the excruciating struggle of a cadre of men who work at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Broken into three chapters, BOLT begins its story with an almost menial task—a bolt has come loose in the nuclear facility, leaking radiation-laden water, which the men must go and tighten—which then unfolds in an ever-echoing aftermath.

Alone Again In Fukushima is a documentary solidly rooted in nuclear aftermath, following the story of a man who has stayed behind in a radioactive town to take care of the pets and livestock that were abandoned after the town’s evacuation in 2011. Director Mayu Nakamura employs generous, gentle camerawork, dwelling on almost pastoral scenes, concentrating on balefully mooing cows and cheekily purring cats that skitter across radioactive ground. With themes of perseverance in the face of inordinate difficulty, as well as the stunning incompetence of the state in the face of a natural and man-made disaster, Alone Again is a quietly gorgeous film, brimming with powerful luster.

Taken together, the CJFC film selections offer an overarching realism, creating a prism of diverse stories and perspectives that showcase a collaged and multilayered Japan. This is especially timely, as Japan barrels optimistically toward the Olympic Games despite domestic concern that the games ought not to be the priority while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. “Yes, Tokyo has the Olympics, and yes we have so much, and we can’t stay in the corona pandemic forever,” says Sakamoto. “The thing is, people’s hope and reality sometimes has a gap.”

Many of the films in the CJFC dwell in this gap between reality and expectation. Consider the lush, blue-toned Yan, about a young Taiwanese-Japanese man named Yan Yan who is tasked by his father to return to Taiwan and find his estranged brother. When Yan Yan arrives in Taiwan, he finds that his resentment toward his late Taiwanese mother and estranged brother are more complicated than they initially appear, especially when confronted with his brother’s new life. Director Keisuke Imamura adds a fluid, meditative quality to what would be an otherwise typical story of coming to terms with one’s past, adding balletic, contemplative scenes that imaginatively explore each character’s inner landscape.

Pushing more formal envelopes is All About Chiaki Mayumura, a film that starts like a straight documentary about the eponymous pop star. But, as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the cheeky, poppy story has hidden depths with a distinctly science-fiction tinge: Chiaki Mayumura isn’t just an extremely capable pop star but actually several different people. No, she doesn’t have stunt doubles—she’s a clone from an underground alternative Tokyo. The light, airy, infinitely watchable film quickly develops into a clear-eyed thought experiment with scientific and ethical implications.

VIDEOPHOBIA is a psychosexual thriller about a disillusioned young woman who returns home to Korea Town in Osaka after the failure of her acting career. There, she engages in what she believes to be a casual one-night stand, only to find that her sexual encounter was filmed and uploaded to the Internet. Shot entirely in black and white with a roving sense of voyeurism reminiscent of Hitchcock, this is a film that asks what happens when the difference between the life one hopes to live and the life one actually lives becomes too stark, causing a tilting erosion of reality itself.

Dynamite Graffiti and The Manga Master are the two most polished offerings of the bunch, both of them biopics. Dynamite Graffiti intermingles an upbeat, matter-of-fact tone with a sometimes-confounding grim reflection as it follows the life of adult magazine editor Akira Suei and the aftereffect of his mother’s suicide-by-dynamite. Most notable is the enthusiasm with which director Masanori Tominaga recreates Showa-era Japan, from smoke-filled sepia coffee shops to the unchanging drabness of the police offices where pornographic images were censored by “reluctant” cops. The Manga Master is also about censorship and creative work, though set about 40 years prior with a focus on Rakuten Kitazawa, often thought to be the forefather of manga, a type of Japanese cartoon. Though the pace lags at times, the story’s careful attention to historical timeline effectively weaves together an artist’s ars poetica with a snapshot of Japan before and during World War II.

Though no screener was available for Prison Circle, this documentary is among the first-ever forays into painting an intimate picture of the contemporary Japanese prison system. “The film itself is made as a case study, and so we have four inmates and the director, who tried to dig into their stories and how they ended up in the place they are standing right now,” Sakamoto explains. Kono adds that while he was initially unfamiliar with the Japanese prison system, he hopes that viewers will have their eyes opened as he did, saying, “I want anyone, if they don’t know, to spend two hours or so to watch this film, and even if it’s a little time, they can still learn. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

With stories from all over the Japanese archipelago and a varied offering of characters, the Chicago Japan Film Collective puts up a pluripotent first offering. “You get a chance to watch a great side of Japan and sometimes a bad side of Japan, all included. I want the audience to trust us,” says Kono.

Sakamoto adds, “It’s such a pleasurable moment for me to bring these films in front of an audience. That’s the most important part for me as a producer—I hope that people will enjoy it.”   v